PHOTOGRAPHY & REPRESENTATION OF GENDER-SEXUALITY
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For me, Christer Strömholm’s Les Amies de Place Blanche is one of the greatest of photographic works ever to come out of Europe. Regarded as one of the masters of 20thcentury photography, Strömholm was however not known widely outside his native Sweden for a long time. In the late fifties, he settled down in the Parisian neighborhood of Place Blanche, which was the centre of the metropolis’ transsexual community. The community was going through a tumulus time under the leadership of General Charles de Gaulle, as he tried to create a puritanical atmosphere in the metropolis. Strömholm’s body of work stands testimony to the intimacy he developed with these women of the night, as he combed Pigalle in the darkest of nocturnal hours, photographing the lives of his friends as they worked the streets to get closer to their dream of affording a sex-reassignment surgery in the innards of Casablanca. Unlike what we usually tend to associate thematically with Western photographers, Christer Strömholm’s Les Amies de Place Blanche do not thread the path of portraying the community members as victims. The work intensely celebrates the choices made by Strömholm’s friends; there are rarely bodies of works of this magnitude impregnated with such intimacy. Strömholm’s photographs in Paris have the typical Brassaï feel; yet, comparing Strömholm with Brassaï is like comparing Woody Guthrie with Bob Dylan or maybe Robert Capa to Don McCullin. The soul’s the same, only the volume turned up.
Dayanita Singh’s Myself Mona Ahmed is probably the other great work of photography dealing with gender-sexuality. The celebrated book, Myself Mona Ahmed chronicles thirteen years of Dayanita’s friendship with Mona, a eunuch and her bitter-sweet journey through life. In the beginning, when Dayanita meet her, Mona is seen to be at the peak of her times. Her adopted daughter Ayesha’s birthday parties would last three nights, where eunuchs from far flung corners of Pakistan would even join in. As fate would have it, Ayesha would be taken away from Mona. And things would change forever. Mona would become heartbroken, increasingly lonely, and after fallout with the eunuch community, she becomes an outcast amongst outcasts. She moves to a graveyard which becomes her new home where she tries to recreate and rebuild her life. Dayanita’s sensibilities set this work apart from most visual stories on trans-women that our world is deluged with in the present day. In these grave times, where photographers cannot think beyond the clichéd path of sex-sodomy-sadness, illness and rape, Dayanita Singh’s work shines bright for the sheer intimacy with which she narrates her visual novel.
Maika Elan’s recent work, The Pink Choice is being widely celebrated in the photographic fraternity for its lyricism and sensitivity; delicate handling of a very sensitive issue. Chronicling same-sex relationships in her motherland Vietnam, Maika’s work is deeply rooted in her background as a fashion photographer. The vivid colors and the cinematic feel, the fleeting moments of love and warmth and the joys of togetherness and coupledom makes her work stand out amidst the flood of queer-centered visual stories we come across daily. The Pink Choice is about compassion and empathy; Maika Elan does not attempt to bring out the social scenario or the problems faced by people who are into same-sex relationships. Rather, it celebrates the very idea of romantic relationships in the South-Asian context.
In the modern day, there has been no dearth of visual narratives dealing with alternative sexualities; the void however lies when it comes to sensitive storytelling. Objectification of men and women who have embraced a homosexual or a transgendered identity is rampant in art/photojournalism circles. An aggressive style of photography where the photographer intrudes into the very personal space of the person photographed is not uncommon anymore. Photographs of sex workers and eunuchs by Tiane Doan Na Champassak, recognized globally for his master craftsmanship often makes one reflect on the fact that photography is probably the most invasive form of art. While Tiane remains one of my favorite photographers, I cannot somehow connect with a fraction of his work which I find somewhat intrusive. Similarly, Diane Arbus happens to be one of my heroes and my respect for her knows no bounds. I admire Arbus for her anti-humanist message and unsentimental empathy for her subjects. Susan Sontag, in her classic On Photography writes, ‘Far from spying on freaks and pariahs, catching them unawares, the photographer has gotten to know them, reassured them – so that they posed for her as calmly and stiffly as any Victorian notable sat for a studio portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron.’
While I cannot but admire Diane Arbus with the sincerest of loyalty, there are times when I find myself distanced emotionally from some of her photographs on America’s transvestites. In fact, as of now, the estate of Diane Arbus has refrained from producing the complete work on transvestites that the photographer produced between 1957-1965. A 2005 article called the estate’s allowing the British press to reproduce only fifteen photographs an attempt to ‘control criticism and debate’. Still, I will keep respecting Arbus for her notorious honesty. There are few photographers I love as much as I love Diane Arbus.
Recently, I came across a portrait series on Thailand’s ladyboys by the German photographer Marcus Koppen. While most of the portraits are actually quite visually pleasing, the name of the series turned out to be somewhat shocking: The Girl Got Balls. I mean, I am sure that a different name could have done more justice to the rather nice set of images made by Koppen. Talking about sensitivity or the lack of it, a friend of mine who happens to be a prominent queer activist in the city of Calcutta shudders at the very mention of the annual festival of transgendered individuals taking place at Koovagam in the southern part of India.‘Oh, Koovagam is the graveyard for the eunuchs! A complete disaster. And photographers tend to have a field day vulturing around.’ Every spring, my Facebook feeds are flooded with photographs from peers, making their photographic pilgrimage to Villupuram just like they’d flock to Pushkar Camel Fair in autumn. The visuals are usually same: mourning eunuchs beating their chests in a state of hysteria or spreading wide their legs for the camera rather seductively, fingering their cunts or performing fellatio on a customer or roaming around in their bras and petticoats in the interiors of motels smelling of semen.
More than the Koovagam festival, the friend of mine gets annoyed more often when photographers approach hir with the intention of connecting them with members of hir shelter-home for trans-women who use it for putting on make-up before working the streets at night and then taking refuge at those ungodly nocturnal hours when going home post-work in the far-flung corners of Calcutta isn’t a practical option. ‘All the time, someone is approaching me with the intention of getting access to my transgender friends. They usually begin quite seriously, using words like gender, identity, sexuality and so on. And whenever I hear these words, I put my earplugs on. Reflex action, you can say. If someone wants to explore gender, he should begin by taking a photograph of himself in front of the mirror.’
Sometime back, I received a phone call from a journalist associated with a newspaper which is solely dedicated to keeping Bengal’s middle-class updated about job opportunities. I have no idea why they called me up in spite of the fact that I have this habit of coldly turning down corporate job offers, that I have had the good fortune of coming my way a few times. So, anyway, the journalist asked me quite a lot of silly questions like what camera young photographers should buy in order to take photographs of the standard I have attained today and how easily one can earn money as a photographer and work towards starting a family. It seemed as if he was cracking one cruel joke after another because I neither earn decent money nor do I usually get offers of exhibiting my work, nor do I have any intention or courage to ever start or sustain a family. I don’t know why I was answering obediently but it was probably because I was stuck in a traffic jam in the south, owing to a religious procession by Bharat Sevasram Sangha, snailing ahead in hideous saffron attire, in front of the never-ending cluster of cars. While all these questions were coming my way, suddenly the journalist asked me about my series of photographs of my transgender friends taken in the last one year. ‘Tell me, Mr. Gupta, about your work on your transgenders. Do you go den-hunting every day?’ A couple of years ago, if someone had asked this question, I could have flared up. But these days, I see enough of the quintessential stupid journalist nervously jotting down notes, names and interviews at the Pride, the stupid smile never fading once from her faces. She will go home in the evening, write her stupid article, perhaps even a homophobic one, just like Akhil Katyal predicts. And she is of course accompanied by that middle-aged grumpy photojournalist with his typical paunch, furiously shooting away like a madman, as drag queens with bursting bosoms kiss in front of him. ‘Didi, arekbar chumu khan! Chobi korte hobe!’ the bravest one requests loudly, as he and the other photographers take aim for the next decisive moment. ‘Sister, kiss once more! Need to make a photo!’
Lips are locked.
The cameras roar out like machine-guns in Vietnam War.